It has been noted that dying people often become more who they are in those moments than they have ever been. Any pretense they may have previously held up as a defense falls away. Right? I mean, what would be the point of being anything but who you are at such a moment? One interpreter, citing this tendency, says that at the point of death, we all become the condensed version of ourselves. We become who we are at our core.
.... Then Mary does four remarkable things in a row. First she loosens her hair in a room where there are men, which a respectable woman would never do. Then she pours this balm on the feet of Jesus, which also is not done -- maybe on the head, but not on the feet. The intimacy of the event more than doubles when she touches his feet with her hands. Finally the coup de gras-- she wipes his feet with strands of her flint black hair. Love and death bound together forever in one picture. The whole thing leaves them all speechless.
Eight hundred years ago the Italian poet, Dante, posited that hell was not really a place of punishment. Instead, he argued that it was a place God, in God’s infinite love, offered to those who, for whatever reason, don’t want to walk humbly and eternally with God. Dante argued that “hell” was not a place where God slaps people with the right hand of God’s wrath but, rather, offers them the left hand of God’s love.
Way back when the narrative about Abram and Lot begins in Genesis 12, Abram is called by God and this interesting piece of information is inserted. God says, “Abram, through you all the families of the earth will be blessed.” Note that God does NOT say, “Through you, only those people who are your DNA matches on ancestry.com will be saved. No, God has in mind to bless ALL the families of the earth. It’s counter-intuitive. And it’s easily forgotten, which is why 80+% of Christians in this country condone racism and xenophobia.
Vladimir Putin, interviewed on NPR a year after 9/11, spoke of Osama bin Laden as very like Pharaoh. He was asked, “What did you think when Reagan spoke of the USSR as an evil empire.” His answer: “It was just a manner of speaking -- just cold war rhetoric. We didn’t take it too seriously.” “What about when Pres. Bush spoke of Osama Bin Laden as evil?” Pres. Putin answered, “It was an understatement. I cannot use words to describe him on the air.” Then he said something to make one’s blood run cold. “We are as dust to them." Just like the Israelites were to Pharaoh. Just like the Muslims were to the white supremacist shooter in New Zealand on Friday.
According to the story, it took some time for Hosea to begin to get an idea of what God was doing by calling him into such a marriage, but that part of the narrative makes this rather fascinating, because it takes a long time for most people to understand why he or she marries the particular person they choose to marry, does it not? The real reason, I mean.
The Apostles’ Creed leaves out all the teachings of Jesus. Every one of them. Here is how some have put the problem. The place for the teachings of Jesus in the Apostles’ Creed is held by a comma – it’s the comma between “born of the Virgin Mary” [comma] and … “suffered under Pontius Pilate.” Do you see? Jesus’ whole life is left out, as if the only important thing is that he was born, and that he died. That amounts to “Christianity-lite,” to me, especially when it comes to this morning’s text. It leaves out the hard stuff. It says to Christians, pay no attention to what the man Jesus said. Just believe he died for your sins and live however the heck you want.
Life, according to Jesus, is like the medieval symbol of life, a great WHEEL OF FORTUNE. It just keeps moving around and around. Jesus’ point is simply that those at the top, with the wind blowing in their hair, will eventually have their turn at the bottom. And those at the bottom, in the mud and the mire, will one day fly with the eagles. They may not think so. Being at the bottom is debilitating, but things change even when you are there in the pit.
We humans have a myth attached to it – the myth of Sisyphus, right. What is life like? It’s rolling a huge stone up a hill all day long, only to have it roll back to where we started and we have to push it back up the next day all over again. It may be your obstreperous child, or your alcoholic husband, or someone at work who works above you, or something inside you like an obsession, or a loss you can’t seem to put behind you, or some fear that won’t ever go away.
How do you know what you are supposed to do with your life? This is a weighty question, regardless of where you happen to be on your journey: facing a decision about graduate school and career; working hard at your job while wondering whether it’s the right one; deciding what to do when the kids are fledging, approaching retirement, when the work that has occupied you and defined you is coming to an end and you’re wondering about what you will do with the rest of your life.
Now, I wonder why they cried? What in this hearing of scripture, was so emotive? Reading the Bible in worship doesn’t usually make us cry, except maybe at a funeral, or maybe a wedding, those moments when our lives are most cracked open and receptive. But at the Water Gate that day, they cried. Maybe they cried for the same reason that we cry when we see a movie that moves us, a scene of pathos that touches our emotions or something that so engulfs us in a wave of memory that we see ourselves in that situation and know that feeling, or remember something touching our own experience. I’m guessing that they cried for as many different reasons as there were people gathered who cried.
.... but let me ask, how much power do the rest of us really have over making our twilight years happy? What might indicate whether the wine in the second half of this journey might be better than the vintage in the first half?
I want to use this sermon to focus on that last word – truth. Mostly because it is such an issue today – a day when more and more people, it seems, are playing fast and loose with it. Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan was fond of saying, “Everyone is entitled to his own opinion but not his own facts.” That may be the most important statement made by anyone in government in our lifetime, but not enough people seem to appreciate that today.
On the last day of the year 999, the old Basilica of St. Peter’s in Rome was thronged with a mass of weeping and trembling worshipers awaiting the end of the world. The pope was there, and he was just as anxious as his flock that some cataclysmic act of God was at hand. When midnight came round and nothing happened it was said that his flock ran out into the streets of Rome, shouting and cheering and celebrating the fact that they were still alive. Well, most of them, anyway. Apocalyptic-ism has been around for a long time. It is in the Bible. The early Christian church, living under intense and often cruel persecution, fervently prayed for Jesus to return and bring to an end the horrific ordeal they were enduring in his name.
Fifth grade seems to be the key year over all. It is often the year kids put all the academic pieces together. They are able to look at school with a little distance, Teachers are no longer substitute parents. Kids will come out of fifth grade either saying, “I got this,” or “I’d rather be somewhere else. School’s just not for me.”
Singing does amazing things to the human spirit. It's powerful; sometimes it's downright dangerous. One December, late in the 1980s, near the end of it's rule, the white government in Pretoria, South Africa banned the lighting of candles AND . . . the singing of Christmas carols in the township of Soweto.
When asked, “Why?” by a member of the press, the government spokesperson said, "You know how emotional black women are. Christmas carols have an emotional effect upon them." Geez, you let a poor Jewish peasant woman like Mary, or a black mother in Soweto sing -- well, you don't where it might lead. They were right. They proved the moral bankruptcy of their rule by saying it, but they were right.
This is hard for most of us who are more like John the Baptist than Jesus. We tend to think pretty conventionally about rewards and punishments. We’d rather live in that kind of world. I mean, this business of Christianity is difficult when you really look at it closely. John never would have been a happy follower of Jesus. And Jesus knew this.
Repentance is what can happen when you come home from a camping trip or a river trip where you carried all that you needed for two weeks on your back or in your little boat -- and then you walk in your front door and you read your mail or email and you find yourself overwhelmed with all you own, and all that owns you.
To say Jesus is LORD, is to say that everything and everyone else in this life is NOT Lord – especially the ones who claim to be – which may be a spouse, or a corporation, or a national leader -- take your pick.
To his credit, Hannah’s husband, Elkanah, is saying here that he sees women as more than just vessels for childbearing when he asks if he isn’t more to her than many little children. Love is something he and Hannah share. Not rare in the ancient world, but not evidenced everywhere, either. What he doesn’t acknowledge here is that he is a rich man who can afford more than one wife. He has one who has already given him children and he also has one that he loves, Hannah. His needs are mostly met, but not Hannah’s.